Attachment styles. It’s the kind of thing you read about in women’s magazines or see online with a link to find out which attachment style you are, but what actually are attachment styles, and why do they matter?

Founded in Psychology, the Theory of Attachment was first developed by British psychoanalyst, John Bowlby. Bowlby wanted to understand the distress felt by infants who were separated from their parents – their primary attachment figure.

Bowlby’s research showed that what he called the ‘attachment behavioural system’ was designed to regulate proximity to their attachment figure.

Despite Bowlby’s research focusing on infant-caregiver relationships, he also believed that attachment characterised human behaviour “from the cradle to the grave.”

A colleague of Bowlby’s, Mary Ainsworth, began to systematically study infant and parent separation, inventing a situation known as “the strange situation.”

“The strange situation” was a lab test done by Ainsworth and her students where 12-month old babies were methodically separated and then reunited with their parents, and their reactions were monitored.

According to Ainsworth’s study, at least three attachment types were noted.

Most children in the study (60%), were upset when their parent left the room, but were happy to see them when they returned, and comforted by them. The children in this group were said to have a secure attachment type.

Ainsworth found that about 20% of children were distressed when their parents left the room but that when the parent came back, they weren’t easily soothed by the parents and wanted to punish them for leaving. These children were referred to as anxious-resistant.

Finally, the other 20% or so of children did not appear too distressed by their parents leaving, and when they came back often turned their attention away from the parents. These were said to belong to the avoidant attachment type.

Ainsworth’s research was important for multiple reasons, but not least for the fact that she set out the framework for future scholars to study attachment types, such as Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver in the 1980s.

However, in the late-1980s, Bowlby and Ainsworth’s research was broadened to study adult romantic relationships and the question was asked: to what extent does a person’s attachment style that was fostered as a child play out in their adult romantic relationships?

Hazan and Shaver (1987) were the first to adapt both Bowlby and Ainsworth’s research to look at adult relationships and they found that there were similarities between interactions that children had with their primary caregivers and interactions that adults had with their partners.

They observed that like children and their parents, adults and their romantic or platonic partners desired to be close to each other and feel comforted when they are around. On the other hand, they also found that when the romantic partner was not around or unavailable, the other person felt anxious or lonely when they were away.

However, this research is not to say that these relationships are the same, but that there are similarities between how the core issues of attachment apply to both types of relationships.

Initially Ainsworth’s research referred to three attachment types, but in recent years a fourth has been added.

The four attachment styles are:

  • Secure
  • Anxious – preoccupied
  • Dismissive – avoidant
  • Fearful – avoidant

So there you have it. However, don’t worry if you think that the type of attachment style fostered by your parents when you were a child is necessarily going to have an impact on the type of relationships you will have when you grow up – though there are other areas of psychology that would argue that this is true – it seems based on numerous studies that they are only “moderately related at best,” according to Chris Fraley, Professor of Psychology at Illinois University.